With the end of Cannes 2019, here’s looking back at Palme d’Or winners over the years

Baradwaj Rangan

May 30, 2019 13:06:30 IST

Now that Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite has won the Palme d’Or, let’s look back down the years and see if we can settle on the one Palme d’Or winner to beat all others. Let’s exclude the most recent winners like Shoplifters, The Square and I, Daniel Blake. They’re too new. It’s too soon to know how they will age. And aging is something inevitable in the movies, too. Take Delbert Mann’s Marty (1955), which won both the Academy Award for Best Picture and the Palme d’Or.

Trivia note: The only other film to accomplish this double-win is Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend. Though when this film won, in 1946, the topmost award at Cannes was called Grand Prix du Festival International du Film. It’s only in 1955 that this name was changed to Palme d’Or, and Marty was the first winner. (The award went back to being called Grand Prix from 1964 to 1974, and thereon, it’s been the Palme d’Or.)

With the end of Cannes 2019, here’s looking back at Palme d’Or winners over the years

A still from Parasite, Bong Joon-ho's film that won the Palme d'Or at Cannes 2019.

Marty is a simple love story about simple, ordinary folks: a butcher (Ernest Borgnine) and schoolteacher (Betsy Blair). Today, you’d call it an underdog romance. There’s a cultural context to it, sure. Look at the other romances that came out the same year. The Seven Year Itch had Tom Ewell and Marilyn Monroe. To Catch a Thief had Cary Grant and Grace Kelly and the French Riviera setting. Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, set in Hong Kong, had Jennifer Jones and William Holden. Summertime was set in Venice, and it had Rossano Brazzi and Katharine Hepburn and David Lean’s talent for spectacle. In the midst of all this, Marty stood out for being an unassuming tale about unassuming people. Cannes called it “a charming story”.

But is “charm” enough for an art-film festival that, more than ever today, is driven by auteurist vision? I’m not saying Marty is not a good movie. I’m saying it’s not, seen today, the most standout Palme d’Or winner. And it seems scandalous that it beat out John Sturges’s tight anti-racism thriller Bad Day at Black Rock, Elia Kazan’s superbly judged adaptation of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, and especially Jules Dassin’s Rififi, one of the greatest examples of French film noir, with a near-wordless, near-thirty-minute safe-cracking sequence that deserved its own little Palme d’Or.

Trivia note: Two Indian films in Competition that year were Bimal Roy’s Biraj Bahu (Kamini Kaushal, Abhi Bhattacharya) and Prakash Arora’s Boot Polish (Baby Naaz won a special mention as  child actress).

Okay, I don’t want this piece to turn into an excuse for Marty-bashing, but I’m also beginning to realise that picking one “best” Palme d’Or winner is not the easiest task, given that we’re going to have to choose between, say, Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana and Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg -- the former is a scandalous drama about a soon-to-be nun who visits her widower uncle (whose wife she resembles), the latter is a gorgeously sad musical where every word is sung. So let me just list a few top favourites: Jerry Schatzberg’s Scarecrow (a marvellous road movie starring Al Pacino and Gene Hackman), Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and Apocalypse Now (which I saw again, this year, in Cannes), Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha, Jane Campion’s The Piano, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies, Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Laurent Cantet’s The Class, Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita

Just thinking back on these films, I’m realising that most of them stand up very well, far better than the Best Picture Oscar winners. (There’s very little scope for “But how could Rocky win over Taxi Driver!”-type fulminations with the Cannes winners.) Take Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953), which also won the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival. (Today, you wouldn’t find the same film competing in two top festivals.) It’s one of the earliest thrillers about men on a dangerous mission -- in order to put out an oil-well fire, they have to drive trucks with nitro-glycerine cargo over a mountainous route where every bump is potential death. Can such a film even be nominated for a Palme d’Or, leave alone win it? Isn’t the award meant for more “serious” fare? But this is serious fare. We get the pulse-pounding adrenaline rush we expect from the premise. But there’s also a healthy dose of fatalism. It’s an existential thriller. You may want to reconsider the popcorn.

These four men are employed by an American multinational (the story is set in a South American hellhole), and the predation of land remains a running subtext. (A character remarks, cynically, “If there’s oil around, they’re not far behind.”) We spend an entire hour getting to know these men, before the mission begins, but the most fascinating aspect of the film is that it isn’t interested in making us root for or against these men. They are neither heroes nor villains. By removing this subjectivity, Clouzot makes us hang on to the mission over all else. It’s the purest kind of suspense, where emotion is stripped away -- if we “feel” anything, it’s not with the heart but with the gut. Nearly seventy years later, The Wages of Fear remains a pure instance of cinema. White-knuckle entertainment, plus auteurist vision: it’s a hell of a combination.

Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).

Updated Date: May 30, 2019 13:08:17 IST